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Putting the Garden State's Pre-K Education Programs in Perspective

New Jersey has a multiplicity of educational offerings for preschoolers; some deliver top quality, others are mediocre at best

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This is the first in a six-part series that will examine how New Jersey delivers preschool education, as well as the political and financial issues supporters face as they push to bring the benefits of pre-K to many more children.

Universal preschool is near the top of the education agenda these days. President Barack Obama is proposing universal pre-K for low-income children; New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio has implemented it citywide; and New Jersey children’s advocates are calling for a major expansion of the state’s free preschools in poor communities.

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Credit: Stephanie Aaronson
Elijah Johnson, age 3, talks with Giselle Leduc, left, during reading time at Acelero Learning in Camden.

Although most New Jerseyans may not realize it, the Garden State is often held out as a national model for pre-K education and what it can accomplish. While the many studies that have tracked the benefits of preschool education are sometimes at odds with one another, research shows that the pre-K provided by the state’s Department of Education to 35 low-income districts has had certain and lasting effects.

Yet not all preschools are alike, and the vast majority of New Jersey’s children do not have access to public pre-K. Many educators say that while New Jersey was an early leader in the effort, its program has suffered under political and funding pressures and is struggling to fulfill its promise.

Most New Jersey residents who do send their children to preschool instead rely on a large network of private facilities that range from brand names like Goddard and Bright Horizons to smaller individual centers and unlicensed care in private homes. While some offer quality teaching, others are little more than babysitting, and the educational benefits vary accordingly.

New Jersey’s high-quality program

New Jersey has long offered free universal preschool in 35 low-income cities and towns and currently has more than 47,000 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled. A preschool expansion for low-income 4-year-olds in 17 additional districts began this fall, and a push is under way to expand universal preschool to another 90 districts. A group of business leaders and advocates recently launched the Pre-K Our Way campaign to lobby for the required funding increase.

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The federal and state governments are also trying to improve the private, non-state-funded childcare centers that most young children attend. Of the state’s 639,000 children under six, about 412,000 are in some type of childcare, according to the Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), the Newark nonprofit that helped craft the state’s public preschool standards.

Studies of private childcare and preschools show that on average they are of mediocre quality and many have no educational value. Even public preschools, which are usually better-funded, may have few benefits if their quality is not carefully monitored and continuously improved. However, the research has shown that high-quality preschools like New Jersey’s public program can have very significant, long-lasting effects.

A study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University found that by fourth or fifth grade, kids who attended pre-K in Abbott districts were on average three-quarters of an academic year ahead of their peers who didn’t. They had been held back a grade less often, and fewer were in special-education programs. In the long run these benefits should cut dropout rates, save money, and even reduce teen pregnancy and criminal behavior.

The project to expand free pre-K thus carries a sense of moral urgency among advocates, particularly given that New Jersey has some of the largest achievement gaps in the country between white and nonwhite students, and wealthy and poor students.

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Brian Maher, a member of the Pre-K Our Way coalition

“As I researched what works in education, it became clear that high-quality preschool education programs were a proven way to improve educational performance throughout a person’s educational career and thus enable children to have much improved opportunities for success in high school, college, and life,” said philanthropist Brian Maher, a member of the Pre-K Our Way coalition, during a state legislative hearing in October.

“Even during the most difficult economic times in recent memory, states across the nation are investing in expanding pre-K because they have determined that it is critical to their future economic and social well-being,” Maher said. “The leaders of these states are saying what our former governor Tom Kean says: ‘This is what works. If there is anything that you felt is a magic bullet, it is pre-K education.’”

Court-mandated standards

The high quality of New Jersey’s state-funded preschools is a point of pride among educators and perhaps their most distinctive feature.

In compliance with the state Supreme Court’s Abbott decisions, each classroom is limited to 15 children, with a certified teacher and an assistant who follow a “developmentally appropriate, comprehensive curriculum,” according to the DOE. The programs have high rates of mainstreaming disabled children, support for kids whose first language is not English, intervention for those having difficulties, and teacher coaching. Social workers engage parents and refer families to other social services when they need help.

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Cecilia Zalkind, executive director, Advocates for Children of New Jersey

The program “has a high-quality standard, with small class size, well-prepared teachers, and partnerships among school districts, Head Start, and childcare -- all critical elements of quality,” ACNJ executive director Cecilia Zalkind said at the state Senate education committee hearing. “It includes 3- and 4-year-old children, ensuring two years of a high-quality experience, which in itself makes a difference in preparing children for school. It is offered to children in the poorest communities of the state, ensuring that children who need it the most can access it. And it has a proven track record of success.”

The communities that have universal preschool include the 31 former Abbott districts, whose school districts the state is required to fund under the Abbott rulings, and four additional expansion districts. All 3- and 4-year-olds in those cities and towns are eligible for free preschool, even those whose families are not considered low-income. (Since 2008 state officials have called these “former” Abbott districts, though the courts have continued to rule on funding disputes.)

The program serves 45,875 children at an annual cost of $611 million, according to the state Department of Education. It uses a “mixed-delivery” system in which 56 percent of the children are taught by community providers who must meet teacher-certification and other requirements, and 44 percent are in public schools. The community providers include a number of federally funded Head Start centers for families in poverty.

The programs are required to operate six hours per weekday during the academic year. Before- and after-hours care and summer programs are available to families who meet income requirements, though eligibility rules for subsidies for those “wraparound” services were severely tightened a few years ago, reducing participation. Some families must contribute copays for wraparound services depending on their income.

Beyond the Abbotts

In December the state was awarded a four-year, $70 million federal grant to help expand full-day preschool in 17 districts that previously had limited programs or no state-funded pre-K. Of the 1,485 children enrolled in the expansion districts, more than half are in new classrooms and the rest are at preschools that were upgraded to meet the Abbott standards, according to the DOE. The program will eventually grow to 2,300 students.

The expansion serves only 4-year-olds whose families earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, rather than all 3- and 4-year-olds in the districts as the original Abbott program does.

The Abbott and expansion programs are free to participating families. The state’s per-pupil costs are $12,788 for district-run schools and $14,375 for private providers who contract with the districts to run Abbott preschools.

While proposals to create truly universal preschool have never been funded, over the years the state created two small programs that give limited financial assistance to needy children and to districts that want to provide pre-K. Some of these districts recently became part of the federally funded expansion, but many others did not.

One of the programs, formerly called Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA), assists districts that are low-income but not Abbotts. The other, formerly called the Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) helps funds classes of 4-year-olds, often in suburbs, that include both low-income and middle-income kids. ECPA and ELLI programs are not required to follow all the Abbott rules: they enroll few 3-year-olds; more than 60 percent of the kids are in half-day sessions, and 18-student classes are allowed.

ECPA continues to serve about 5,800 children in 81 districts that are not part of the expansion. Fourteen other districts use ELLI money to serve an additional 600 4-year-olds, and nonstate funds to care for 230 3-year-olds, the DOE said.

Some districts receive funds from both programs, and they may also add money from other sources. Princeton, for example, uses ELLI to subsidize free preschool for 4-year olds. Vernon in Essex County charges parents $300 a month for half-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, with special-education students attending for free. Tuition in Summit, Union County, is $3,700 a year, and subsidies are available for low-income families. Along with special-education students, the classes in Summit include regular education students selected by lottery.

Another set of public offerings are federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start childcare programs, which in New Jersey are typically run by nonprofit agencies. They are open to families below the federal poverty line, with some exceptions, and to children with special needs. Under federal rules the programs may be half-day or full-day. Almost all Head Start workers have at least a childcare credential and 71 percent have a degree in early childhood education, according to ACNJ.

Many Head Start agencies serve as Abbott preschool providers and thus must meet the higher state standards. In 2013, 16,060 children were enrolled in Head Start programs in New Jersey, including 13,497 3- and 4-year-olds. Of the preschoolers, about 5,400 or 40 percent were part of the Abbott preschool program, according to the DOE.

The long-term effectiveness of Head Start preschools nationally has been questioned. A much-discussed 2010 study commissioned by the federal government found positive impacts on children after one year, but little or no benefit by third grade compared with other children. NIEER director Steven Barnett and others have contested that conclusion. They note, for example, that some of the control-group children actually did attend Head Start or other good preschools, clouding the significance of the comparison.

Barnett said the accumulated evidence shows that Head Start “produces modest benefits including some long-term gains for children.” The program’s defenders also note that the quality of Head Start providers varies widely across the country. In New Jersey, many of the providers are also in the Abbott program and presumably are having the same long-term positive effect that NIEER found for New Jersey’s public preschools overall.

A universe of private options

The universe of private preschools and daycares in New Jersey is much larger than the publicly funded sector. The state counted 3,964 licensed centers in 2014 that cared for about 348,000 children, including Head Start centers and private Abbott providers. Almost all providers with more than five children must be licensed by the state.

Many of the kids attend franchises of huge multistate chains like Bright Horizons, Goddard School, KinderCare, and The Learning Experience, which may have 150 or more kids at each location. Other options include smaller local chains, individual centers, and YMCAs and other community organizations.

Full-day care in a licensed program costs an average of $9,546 for preschoolers and $11,534 for infants in 2013, according to the New Jersey Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NJACCRRA). Preschool was most expensive in Somerset County at $12,636, followed by Morris and Mercer counties. At the bottom of the list was Cumberland County, at $7,592, just below Hudson and Salem counties.

At the high end of the cost scale are independent private schools that, in addition to elementary education, offer preschool for 4-year-olds during the academic year. They typically have degreed teachers and high faculty-student ratios. Most offer financial aid. Among the most expensive is the Chapin School, a pre-K-8 school in Princeton that costs $26,400 for full-day and $13,200 for half-day pre-K. Red Oaks in Morristown charges $18,655 for full-day and Wardlaw-Hartridge in Edison costs $16,440.

Other private schools are less costly, particularly those that are religiously affiliated, charging fees similar to some childcare centers. Friends School in Mullica Hill costs $14,725 for a day that ends at 3 p.m. plus $1,200 to stay until 6 p.m. Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, a Jewish school, charges $9,500 a year and an additional $2,780 for the extended day. Lacordaire Academy, a Catholic school in Upper Montclair, charges $9,000 plus after-care fees.

The chains and similar daycare centers generally cost $1,000 to $1,500 a month, though in wealthier areas they can approach $2,000, rivaling the private schools. Prices depend on the community’s affluence, how many hours a week the child is attending, and other factors. Centers typically operate year-round, unlike private schools.

Parents who cannot afford centers often turn to relatives or friends to watch their children or other arrangements in private homes. Home providers with 5 or fewer children do not need licenses and are almost completely unregulated. Providers who wish to be paid with state subsidies must register with the state, but registration is otherwise voluntary.

For preschool-age children, the cost of full-time care in a registered home averaged $7,790 a year, or about $650 a month, according to NJACCRRA’s 2013 data. Hunterdon and Somerset counties were the most expensive at more than $11,000 a year, while Passaic was the least expensive at $6,084 -- about $500 a month -- followed closely by Hudson and Camden counties.

Zalkind said that years ago there were about 30,000 registered-family childcare homes, but only 2,021 were registered last year. Registrations may have dropped off because state childcare subsidies for poor families are too low and too hard to qualify for to motivate providers to go through the registration process. (See below for a summary of the subsidies.)

There is no data on the total number of children cared for in family homes, but it runs into the tens of thousands at least. Nationally, among children under 5 who were in childcare, 24 percent were in centers and 8 percent were at a provider’s home, according to 2011 U.S. Census survey. That is, the number of children in homecare was fully a third of the number in centers. In New Jersey, that would amount to more than 40,000 children in family home arrangements. Most of the other children in the census survey were watched by relatives.

The federal government says families should spend about 10 percent of their income on affordable day care, but the average New Jersey family with two kids spends 24 percent, according to ACNJ. Low-income households spend 44 percent and families in poverty must spend the equivalent of 88 percent, the organization says.

The state offers limited financial help for the poorest families. About 56,500 children received some type of subsidy in 2013, according to NJACCRRA. Families that earn up to double the federal poverty level, or $47,700 for a family of four, are eligible to apply to NJ Cares for Kids, the main subsidy program. For children age 2 1/2 and older it provides vouchers worth up to $573 a month for centers and $527 for homecare. Rates are slightly higher for accredited providers. The amount for nonregistered family/neighbor providers is $314 a month.

Other state programs provide free childcare to families in the WorkFirst NJ welfare program; subsidize two years of care for former WorkFirst participants; pay relatives or friends to care for a child; subsidize care of adoptees; and help pay for care of kids involved in the child protection system.

A picture of poor quality

While safe, affordable childcare is a boon to working parents, the available evidence suggests that centers and family homes as a general rule are not of sufficient quality to reliably benefit children’s intellectual and social development. One 1996 analysis of two national childcare-quality studies concluded that “mediocre quality is the rule.”

The larger daycare companies advertise curricula developed by educational experts, and some are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children or other organizations. However, most daycare centers only meet the state’s basic licensing standards, which focus on health and safety issues, and would not satisfy the higher-quality measures required of the state-funded preschools.

Under the state licensing rules, for example, class groups at centers may have up to 20 toddlers. Bachelor’s degrees or teaching certifications are required of directors and head teachers in large centers, but the other staff, as well as teachers at centers with up to 30 children, only need an associate degree, college credits in relevant fields, or a state-approved credential. Staff development requirements are low -- either 10 hours a year of training per staffer, or else 20 hours a year for directors, head teachers, group teachers, and supervisors and none for the rest. There are no curricular requirements.

The state sets stringent standards for student-staff ratios, insurance, health and safety, age-appropriate activities, discipline, and other issues, but has a weak system for monitoring compliance. New Jersey ranks near the bottom among the states in its oversight of centers, according to Child Care Aware of America, a national childcare resource organization.

NIEER sent trained observers to hundreds of childcare centers around New Jersey from 2011 to 2013 and found that on average their quality was “less than good, but better than minimal.”

“Although not as bad as many feared, it is not as good as anyone would wish,” NIEER concluded.

The centers scored reasonably well for “interactions,” including discipline, supervision, and interactions among children. But they did particularly poorly on “personal-care routines” like hand-washing and toileting, and on “activities,” a broad category that includes fine motor skills, art, music, math, and playing with blocks. ACNJ warned that these conditions threatened children’s ability to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.

Observation of family-homecares in Essex County yielded even poorer results. On a scale of 1 to 7, state-registered homes averaged just 3.23 and subsidized family/friend homes scored below 3. Appropriate reading materials were scarce; kids had little opportunity for active play or access to outdoor space; caregivers relied too much on television; and there was little attention to nature and science education, NIEER found.

In 2013 New Jersey was awarded a 4-year, $44 million grant to create a “Consumer Reports-like rating system of early learning providers” for parents that also includes free training sessions for teachers, scholarships, and minor financial assistance for participating providers. The system, called Grow NJ Kids, is being rolled out with the goal of including 1,790 providers by 2018. Participation is voluntary. The state will start posting ratings next year.

Some observers are skeptical that Grow NJ Kids or any other initiative short of inclusion in the state-funded program can bring private providers up to the standards that will close achievement gaps and address the social ills of poverty. The fees that most of them can charge in the private market cannot cover the costs of retaining skilled teachers, keeping class sizes small, hiring support staff, and all the other activities that would allow them to measurably help children.

“You can put in rating systems and all of that, but in the end of the day it’s money. It's investment to improve,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark.

“These programs are underfunded. If we’re asking them to deliver quality preschool to kids, they just don't have the capacity to do it,” he said. “You can't get the quality improvements that are really important, like well-trained teachers that are certified and the kind of support and curriculum development and all of these things we see in the Abbott districts, without significant funding.”

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